SEO experts and clients alike cling to keywords like a drowning man clings to a piece of driftwood. We still track them, sometimes hundreds of them. We make lists. We recommend them in copy and content. But are keywords still important? Do they still matter in SEO?
What Does Google Want?
While not all search occurs on Google, Google is still easily the search leader. That’s why SEO experts tend to focus on Google when speaking about SEO generally. You should optimize for Bing and some other search engines, but you must optimize for Google.
Google’s goal is to generate the most helpful search results possible for the search user. In order to do this, the algorithm(s) that Google uses have become more and more sophisticated. Now, Google is so advanced that it can understand natural language queries instead of search term strings. It understands the context surrounding a page. It breaks down the structure of a piece of content to understand the subject of the content and how it’s put together.
This is how it offers the best user experience and captures the most eyeballs for ad placement.
In fact, as the algorithm is tweaked and updated, nearly all of those updates are geared toward helping Google understand context and natural speech.
What Does That Mean For Keywords?
Back in the wild west days of the internet, keywords were king. Search engines would look for keywords in the metadata of the page, and match those words to keywords in the search query. Optimizing for keywords was thus the sum total of SEO work.
Then, keyword stuffing became the strategy of choice. Keywords were shoved into both metadata and on-page content frantically, including keyword variations.
The result of this was very poor quality content being served to search users.
Google had one solution: actively reduce the importance of keywords in search.
They’ve been doing this by teaching the algorithm to understand search intent, natural language use, and context. Exact match keywords are already more or less dead in SEO. Moving forward, keyword use is going to continue to become less and less important. It might disappear altogether.
What Do We Do Without Keywords?
As Google has repeatedly told us, quality content is the number one ranking factor for your website. Even though this comes directly from the search giant itself, SEO professionals and company managers alike continue to treat content as an afterthought. As a vehicle for keywords rather than the goal itself. This is quickly becoming an outdated mindset.
What’s likely to become more important is key topics. The words are unimportant; what matters is that you’re producing great content that offers value to search users. Instead of optimizing for “cleaning sneakers,” “how to clean sneakers,” “products for cleaning sneakers,” “cleaning kids’ sneakers,” etcetera, you simply write an excellent and comprehensive piece of content about how to clean sneakers.
We must also produce content for readers, not for search engines and not for our own companies and clients. Google is not interested in supporting the interests of companies’ websites. They are supporting the interests of search users. So write the best content you can that is of use to the folks who are out there searching. This means that you’re likely going to publish less about your product and more about solving problems for your audience. I shoot for around 80% value to the customer and 20% product focus.
Content silos are more important now. A content silo is a way to cover a key topic comprehensively. Usually, they include a main, broad focus article linked to and linked from deeper and narrower articles on a topic. This is useful for your audience because it gives them access to more information on topics that interest them, but it also allows Google to determine the topic of your content through the context surrounding it, and it shows that you really know your stuff because you’re covering a topic extensively. This builds authority, and it builds trust with your user base.
Keywords are dying, but SEO is not. Content is still king, as it has been for years and years. Futureproof your search rankings and start developing a comprehensive content plan with a user focus now, and you’ll be spitting out the kind of quality content that Google wants to promote for years to come.